Thirty Years in the Service of Ecumenical Movement: The Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC

By Raiser, Konrad | The Ecumenical Review, October 1995 | Go to article overview
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Thirty Years in the Service of Ecumenical Movement: The Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC


Raiser, Konrad, The Ecumenical Review


The Joint Working Group (JWG) between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches has been at work for thirty years. The Group was constituted in 1965, before the closing of the Second Vatican Council, to explore the possibilities of common study and to propose methods and structures of collaboration between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches.

This thirtieth anniversary offers an occasion to express our gratitude to those who planted the seeds at a small meeting in Milan (1964), where it was agreed that such a step was desirable,(1) to those who not long thereafter laid the foundations at the meeting of the WCC central committee in Enugu (1965),(2) and to those who laboured for the agreement by the Vatican "to set up a mixed committee... to explore together the possibilities of dialogue and collaboration between the WCC and the RCC".(3)

It is of course difficult to summarize three decades of work - a succession of achievements and failures - in the framework of a short article. In what follows I will not make long references to RCC-WCC cooperation within the framework of the Commissions on Faith and Order and on World Mission and Evangelism and on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity - not to minimize their importance but in order to focus on aspects of RCC-WCC cooperation which are not so well known.

Presenting the work of the JWG raises many questions: What has been the real contribution of the JWG to the ecumenical movement in its thirty years of existence? What is the role and the specificity of the JWG today? Is it time for a systematic evaluation of what the JWG has achieved? Is it time to review its mandate and basic tasks?

In part such questions arise from the variety of understandings and expectations of the JWG. The true significance of the JWG "is only seen when it is understood as one element in the manifold and diverse - official and unofficial - movement at every level", commented one of those who served the JWG in the first years of its existence.(4) "The Joint Working Group represents a turning point in the history of the ecumenical movement," concluded a thesis presented some years ago to the University of Fribourg.(5) "The Joint Working Group has been renewed at regular intervals, becoming a substitute for Catholic membership in the WCC, quite against the intention of most of its creators," observed a "friendly outsider" in an extensive study which grew out of a paper he was asked to present to one of the JWG meetings.(6)

Where do we stand today? What are our expectations from the JWG within the present ecumenical situation? How does the work of the JWG influence and shape our ecumenical vision?

Three important factors have to be taken seriously into consideration when studying the history of the JWG: first, the JWG, as a joint instrument of the RCC and the WCC, is influenced by developments and changes which take place within its parent bodies; second, the ecumenical situation and, in the broader context of this situation, the relationship between the RCC and the WCC are subject to changes, and it is important to always recall the significant events at each period in order to reestablish the continuity in the development of the JWG; third, the reaffirmation by the JWG of earlier convictions, far from being a purely formal or diplomatic act, reflects an important consolidation in the understanding of the nature and collaboration between the RCC and the WCC.

Initial years of the JWG: "The principles of dialogue"

The initial years of the JWG coincided with the pioneering period of ecumenical initiatives following the Second Vatican Council. The JWG participated fully in the excitement of those years; and within only three years, the JWG was able to fulfil its initial mandate of clarifying the principles and methods of collaboration. The first question confronting the JWG - and indeed a fundamental one - was that of the very nature of ecumenism.

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